Tuesday, April 25, 2017

All is Mind: Matter is an Illusion

Bernardo Kastrup, Dutch Philosopher (Veldhoven, NL)

Esse est percipi. (To be is to be perceived): A thing exists only if it is perceived.
    -- George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its
farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
    —William Butler Yeats, Blood and the Moon

For a time I totally believed that the world is made entirely of Mind.
Then the acid wore off.
    -- Nick Herbert

There is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its thoughts. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms that we share the world with are the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. 
    -- Bernardo Kastrup

Recently Dutch philosopher Bernardo Kastrup published a book Why Materialism is Baloney criticizing the dominant "theology" of our time, namely that everything (minds included) is made out of matter. The prime doctrine of the First Church of Materialism was first set down by Democritus of Abdera (around 500 BC):

Nothing exists but atoms and empty space: all else is opinion. 

In the following millennia, natural philosophers have immensely expanded Democritus's ontology by getting more specific concerning the nature of "atoms" (we now call them "quarks and "leptons") and the forces that govern their motion and transformation (modern jargon for these forces is "vector bosons"). The immense success of modern physics at every scale from photon to galactic cluster is a powerful argument for the Democritean ontology. The undeniable existence of conscious experience is the only fly in the Democritian ointment. To explain the entire world, does Mind have to be added as an extra ingredient to the list of what exists (mind-matter dualism = Dualism)? Or will physics someday explain Mind as a particularly complex arrangement of atoms (matter monism = Materialism)?

The usual tactic of the antiMaterialist heretic is to argue that Mind can never be explained by mere physical brain processes because consciousness is 1. intrinsically OTHER than matter and 2. can do things (classified broadly as parapsychology) that are impossible for matter to do. Edward and Emily Kelly's book Irreducible Mind is a giant encyclopedia of things supposedly difficult or impossible for matter to accomplish.

AntiMaterialist Bernardo Kastrup takes an radically different, audacious and utterly preposterous approach by 1. denying the existence of Matter entirely and 2. arguing that everything is made of mind.

Kastrup's bold position is called idealism, a philosophy associated with Bishop Berkeley (1685 - 1753) and epitomized by his phrase:

All those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived.

 Kastrup recently published an 18-page paper describing his idealistic ontology which I was tempted to dismiss out of hand on the grounds that mind-only views such as Berkeley's are utterly preposterous. But as I looked further into Kastrup's paper, I realized that he was playing by the rules, lining up his premises and assumptions and attempting to put forth a coherent and persuasive argument for his preposterous model of reality. This is a show worth watching, I thought! How is this guy going to logically demolish "all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world" and how is he going to replace every single one of them with mere thought?

BK's first postulate is that the fundamental reality is "That which experiences" (TWE). That is all there is -- and all that there ever was and will be. We might as well call TWE by the name "God", but this primal reality is immensely larger than any God we mere humans could ever conceive.

Next there exist parts of this unitary reality that have separated themselves off from TWE and are somewhat independent of Big Reality. We can designate these Reality Rebels (which include ourselves and all other conscious beings) as "twe" (lower case). We like God are also "that which experiences" but our experiences are rather small.

A part of God that has separated from the Whole.
I'm beginning to like this metaphysics. According to Kastrup, we are all "Shards of God", in the words of Fug/poet Ed Sanders. Shards like us have two modes of perception: inner and outer. We are directly aware of some of our inner thought processes and indirectly aware of the outer world through membrane-mediated external thoughts.

Because we have separated ourselves from the Mind of God, we are mercifully unaware of the Supreme Diety's massively complex thought processes but perceive God dimly and indirectly as "the physical world". In Kastrup's view the physical world appears to us Reality Rebels as "the Body of God". And we perceive our fellow "shards of God" as those parts of the physical world that behave like physical beings with consciousness.

But what does it mean to perceive "the external appearance" of God and the "external appearance" of fellow shards? If we have truly separated ourselves from divinity, why do we perceive anything "external" at all?

And here we come to the most crucial point in Kastrup's philosophy. (We must be constantly aware that this guy is performing a philosophically dangerous high-wire act without a net and try to give him lots of support.) The separated shard is in a desperate position. If he separates completely from Reality, he ends up in a boring prison of solipsism. On the other hand, if he connects fully with Reality, his little personal twe dissolves into the universal sea of Supreme TWE.

Kalstrup's solution: the shard surrounds himself with a protective membrane of Minds That Lie (MTL). The sole function of a Mind That Lies is to take one thought and turn it into another. Once surrounded by this Decepticon Shield, the shard no longer experiences Reality-as-it-is, but merely a particular Representation of Reality. Kastrup calls this necessary shard-protective membrane the "Markov Blanket". And this Blanket's the weakest link in his argument.

How the world might look, information-wise, from inside a human-size Markov Blanket
For just as Kastrup points out that the weakest link in materialism is its failure to deliver a materialist model of Mind, the weakest link in Kastrup's philosophy is his failure to produce an idealist model of matter. Kastrup's magical Markov Blanket must manifest a lot of solid marvels out of purely mental material. It must produce, for instance, the very notion of "a simple material object" -- that exists by itself whether anyone is thinking of it or not. (To be fair, quantum theory possesses a similar weak link in its inability to clearly characterize the notion of "a macroscopic measuring instrument".) 

Materialists can't explain Mind. Idealists can't explain Matter.

A landmark achievement of Kastrupian philosophy would be to demonstrate from purely mental arguments (presumably including specific Markov Blankets made of Minds That Lie) why we seem to live in a physical space consisting of three spatial and one time dimension with a Minkowski metric. 

Kastrup's imaginative philosophy is entertaining and leads one into unconventional ways of thinking about the world. But always the proof is in the pudding. A truly successful model of reality should provide us entirely novel human experiences -- marvelous new experiences that were previously inconceivable. Yes.

Gentleman and ladies, start your engines. May the best reality win.

God wakes up and realizes the whole thing was a really bad dream.
Illustration by Sligo, Ireland artist Annie West, famous for her satirical cartoons of Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

Nick meets a Luck Wave (design by August O'Connor)

I have spent more than a third of my life speculating (with congenial physicist friends) about what quantum mechanics might actually mean -- and have even written a book about it. The gist of the quantum dilemma is that we have a Quantum Theory that successfully predicts the results of every physical measurement. But with this theory comes an utter inability to tell a plausible story about what's really going on in the world -- both before, during and after a measurement. Physicists today possess an essentially perfect Quantum Theory, know how to experimentally produce subtle and delicate Quantum Facts, but cannot convincingly tell their kids a Quantum Reality story that adequately explains both Quantum Theory and Quantum Facts.

Many words concerning quantum reality were exchanged by quantum theory's founders -- especially Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr -- but not much progress was made until the remarkable discovery of Irish physicist John Stewart Bell who formulated an experimental test that could confidently eliminate an entire class of quantum reality models. Not only is it rare for physicists (or anybody else) to TALK ABOUT REALITY, it is even rarer (such was the importance of Bell's discovery) to come up with EXPERIMENTS ON REALITY. Consequently, Bell's original 1964 paper has become one of the most-cited publications in physics.

Bell's original experiment involved TWO ENTANGLED PHOTONS -- one sent to Alice and one to Bob. About this setup, quantum theory says two seemingly contradictory things: 1. that the quantum state of Bob's photon depends instantly (faster-than-light) on Alice's choice of what to measure; 2. that this apparent instantaneous action can never be used for signaling.

The physics jargon for instantaneous voodoo-like connections is the word "non-local". Non-local effects (either in theory or in practice) are as welcome in physics as a corpse at a wedding feast.

So before Bell came along, the theory of entangled systems was manifestly non-local (BAD!), but the same theory also assured that no experiment would ever be able to directly reveal this non-locality (GOOD!).

So quantum theory of entangled systems is NON-LOCAL: But all quantum facts are LOCAL.

What about quantum reality -- the underlying causal dynamics behind both theory and fact? Do we live in a world that's deep-down linked by abominable (to the physicist) non-local connections? Or is quantum reality nicely local, just like the quantum facts?

Bell's surprising conclusion (a powerful mathematical proof, not a mere conjecture) is that no local reality can underlie this everywhere local world.

Quantum reality must be non-local, according to Bell's proof.

To a physicist, Bell's conclusion is preposterous and must certainly be wrong. My first entry into the Bell's Theorem game was an attempt to disprove John Bell. Which ended in my formulating the world's shortest proof for the non-local nature of quantum reality.

Bell's Theorem is so simple that it is difficult to find a flaw. But Bell's greatest weakness can be summed up in the dichotomy: if reality exists, then it must be non-local; but if you DENY REALITY, then you are let off the hook.

But what could "denying reality" possibly mean?

One innocent (but crucial) assumption in Bell's proof is called "contrafactual definiteness" (or CFD, for short).

When you do the Bell experiment on a single pair of entangled photons, both Alice and Bob can set their detectors at only ONE SETTING. But to prove BT, you need to consider the possible results of FOUR SETTINGS. Four settings for the same two-photon event.

CFD assumes that: if we had performed three other measurements -- other than the actual one -- we would have gotten three definite (but unknown) results.

But if the nature of the quantum world is such that CFD is not valid, then you can't prove Bell's theorem. In fact, in a non-CFD world, you cannot even formulate Bell's theorem.

A recent paper by Gerold Gründler from Nürnberg, Germany, (What Does Bell's Inequality Actually Prove?) analyzes a few ways of "denying reality" by postulating (and perhaps even proving -- I am not sure) that we live in a world which does not support CFD. Gründler revisits and revises an earlier work by Israeli physicist, the late Asher Peres, entitled Unperformed Experiments Have No Results (3 page pdf).

Peres's paper suggests that we might live in a world where Unperformed Experiments Have No Results. But what are the details of such a world? How does it actually work?

What would it be like to live in a world where CFD is inconceivable?

Here's one attempt to visualize such a world.

Our thinking about the classical world is dominated by movies. It is easy to imagine rewinding the film, changing only one thing, then doing an (imaginary) retake. Certainly this cinematic model of reality allows us to at least imagine what the results of Unperformed Experiments might look like.

We can even add quantum randomness to the picture by allowing some features of the scene to depend on pure chance. Imagine filming a gambling table -- each reshoot, even of the same game, will give definite but different outcomes -- outcomes that are governed by statistical laws -- analogous to the probabilistic outcomes predicted by quantum mechanics. Bell's Theorem can be proved in a world like this -- a world of definite but statistically determined results.

To move into a non-CFD world, consider the case of a single Uranium atom. Physics considers all Uranium atoms to be EXACTLY THE SAME. Yet this one decayed in one second, while its identical sister is still alive after a million years. The first atom's short life is not due to some defect in its constitution. That's just the way the quantum world works -- identical quantum objects behave differently -- FOR NO REASON AT ALL.

Now consider how the movie analogy might work in a fully quantum world. We rewind the film, KEEP EVERYTHING THE SAME. Then change just one setting and reshoot the experiment.

Keeping everything the same is easy in a quantum world: every photon, electron, quark has always been just the same as every other. But the big problem is that each particle in the universe now behaves differently than in the first take -- giving rise to an entirely different universe -- a universe in which not only does the camera not exist, but the cameraman, the human species, and all life on Earth have vanished. In this second take on our present quantum reality the familiar Earth has no doubt disappeared as well.

As Heraclitus warned, you cannot step twice into the same river, because the river is never the same.

Might an Asher-Peres world in which Unperformed Experiments Have No Results be "hyper-Heraclitean" in the sense that in this kind of quantum reality even the same river is not the same river? In fact this river revisited second time round might not even be a river at all but the insides of a black hole.

Trying to visualize quantum worlds in which CFD is inconceivable might push us to think more deeply not only about fully quantum concepts such as "superposition", "entanglement" and "wave/particle duality" but also to revise our old-fashioned assumptions about everyday classical concepts such as "same", "different", "spontaneity" and even how to correctly use the word "again" when it comes to properly refilming in our imagination the very same event that has already happened once.

We house-broke quantum reality
Trained Schrödinger's Cat to purr
Now daily life's more uncanny
Than atoms ever were.

Asher Peres, who titled his bio "The cat who walks by himself", played a vital part in publicizing the role both he and myself played in the discovery of the quantum "no cloning rule". (How the no-cloning theorem got its name.) which eventually inspired MIT professor David Kaiser to write his popular science history book: How the Hippies Saved Physics. In addition to his pioneering work in quantum information theory, Asher Peres will probably be remembered most as a member of the team of six people who devised the remarkably clever Quantum Teleportation process.

The title of this post was taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's splendid poem: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.

Asher Peres (bottom right) and his five buddies who invented Quantum Teleportation

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Xian Yao (Immortality Elixir)

Nick seeks the Elixir

At winter's end
Residing in Santa Cruz County
In year of Cassini's plunge into Saturn
My physician prescribes
Yang Forest Amber
For melancholy.

One taste:
My pains recede
Like morning mist
Upon Two Bar Creek.

Two taste:
My sluggish brain dissolves
Pops, prances, flies like sparrow.
I grow sly, wise
Observant as a child.

Three taste:
I rise to heaven as music
I sing to my supper, laugh at my woes.
Wellness flooding my being
Overflowing my banks

I cry:
Doctor, Doctor
No more medicine please.
Three taste make me
One with the Immortals.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Natura Naturans

Nick & Onyx (iPad 3 front camera; available light)

The other night on ecstasy
God the Father spoke to me:

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with Her myself
When time and space were new.

Out of inexplicable nothingness
I struck the primal spark.
I barely knew what I was doing.
I was working in the dark.

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with my own creation
When time and space were new.

So please hear, see, smell and taste Her
Caress Her Highness dusk to dawn
With new quantum senses She will teach you
When you get your mojo on.

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with Her myself
When time and space were new.